Former Wildcats Kaz Brown, Leah Edmond return to Kentucky
For Kaz Brown and Leah Edmond, going back is giving back.
This dynamic duo will be returning to their alma mater, the University of Kentucky, on March 30 as they make their second stop of the Athletes Unlimited Volleyball Exhibition Tour, a series of matches that will feature AU pros playing against the top college programs.
“I’m really, really excited to go back to Kentucky and play,” said Brown, who will take part in her first year of Athletes Unlimited Volleyball. “It’s a very special place to me. I spent four years there in college, and I made a lot of lifelong lasting relationships and friendships. I’m really grateful for the opportunity. I would always say I would give anything to play one more game at Kentucky, so I’m really grateful to UK and AU for giving me the opportunity to do that. And I’m so excited.”
The Exhibition Tour not only gives pro players another chance to go home and play, but more importantly, sets out to help grow the sport by exposing college campuses to professional volleyball. Until Athletes Unlimited along, professional volleyball was a scarce commodity in the United States, with most players having to ply their trade overseas.
“It just makes it more notable,” said Edmond, now a veteran of AU Volleyball and a native of Lexington, Kentucky. “Going into Year 3, I know there are still people who have no clue Athletes Unlimited is going on. So what better way to do it than to visit the recent national champions (2020) we’ve had in the sport and just allow some of the biggest volleyball communities that we have in the country to rally and support around us? It’s really exciting and really a big deal because that’s how you get the game to spread, by letting people know that there is more than just college volleyball.”
Brown will be entering her rookie season at Athletes Unlimited, but she is no less passionate about growing her sport by playing at her college home.
“I think it’s really pivotal to grow the sport for volleyball players at all levels, from the club and youth level to the collegiate level for those players to see that, ‘Hey, this is a possibility. You can be a pro and stay in your home country,’” she said. “I think that’s really special. I think it’s going to be a good way to bridge all of those college fan bases to the pro scene, as well.
“You have a team or a player that you root for at the college level, but you will maybe be introduced to players at the pro level for the first time. So when that AU season starts back up, you’ll have players you recognize or want to root for, and that will just help the engagement of the sport grow.”
Growing women’s sports is just one aspect of Athletes Unlimited. Others include making athletes who have children feel welcome and being aware of and involved in social-justice issues. That dovetails nicely with the interests of both Brown and Edmond.
For her part, Brown has written about uplifting female athletes, especially Black female athletes.
“I think Athletes Unlimited has done a really good job as a league about speaking out,” she said. “Anytime there’s any sort of public issue or anything like that, they’re not shying away from it; they’re addressing it.
“With female athletes and Black female athletes, they’ve done a good job of addressing some concerns – listening and growing and figuring out, ‘How can we be more inclusive? How can we make sure we’re representing these individuals the right way?’ I really admire that about the league, as well. Each player getting to represent a cause they want to play for is really special, too. It’s a good reminder that we are athletes and that some of these athletes have played and competed at the highest level.
“We’re very fortunate with our jobs that we get to do something we love and play a game as a job, but there are things that, at the end of the day, we all care about and that are important to us outside of just playing volleyball. I think Athletes Unlimited does a good job of reminding people that we are humans and that we have other things we want to represent that are important to us.”
Across the four sports of Athletes Unlimited, the players speak of these initiatives giving them a feeling of empowerment.
“I think it just makes it easier for the goals I have in life because I do want to have kids,” Edmond said. “For me, it was always like, ‘OK, when I want to have kids, I’m just going to stop playing volleyball.’ Knowing that there is a league that supports that, and I’ve watched them support the moms that I have played with, is really exciting.
“I’m very passionate about social justice, especially in my state, where it’s very polarized when it comes to that. To be able to talk about that and have a platform to talk about it and that it gets uplifted, as well. It’s not hidden. It’s amazing.
“I just feel like everything that I’ve wanted to do through my sport has been made easier by (Athletes Unlimited). I’m a minority in my life in general and especially in volleyball. To be able to be in a position where I can talk about that and being around women who have been through so many different circumstances, being able to use that to promote our sport in a way that it hasn’t had is amazing.”
On lighter notes, both players are looking forward to going “home” to the Kentucky campus and reconnecting with people and places.
“I think just being in Memorial Coliseum is going to be really special,” Brown said. “I’m excited to see my old staff. The girls who are on the team, I didn’t play with any of them, but I do still have relationships with some of them, so I think it’s going to be cool to be on the court with them. To be able to do it with Leah Edmond, my old college teammate, is going to be really special, too, for us. It’s going to be like a trip down memory lane. I know we’re both really excited for that.”
For Edmond, being able to play with Brown in front of the home folks will be special.
“I’m just excited to play in front of people who grew up watching me play because I’m from Lexington,” she said, “Getting to play high school here and getting to play college here, to come back and play as a professional in front of everyone is something that doesn’t happen very often, I never thought would happen, so it’s really cool that I will get to play in front of the same people I’ve played for the past 12 or so years. That’s exciting.
“We literally have not been on the court together since 2017. I’m extremely excited to play with [Brown] again. Her energy is contagious, and the two of us on the court had such a fun time. So I’m really excited to be on the court with her again.”
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There’s one more thing. Edmond’s on-court celebrations are known for their exuberance. What will those look like when she returns to Kentucky?
“I feel like it might be worse because I’m going back to Kentucky,” she said, using the word “worse” in the best possible way. “I feel like I have so many memories of being on that court and being with a former teammate. Both of us were absolutely nuts when it came to celebrating. So I think it’s going to be probably worse.
“Everybody knows me for that. What better way? It’s been three years since I’ve played in Memorial to be the same person. It’s going to be even worse because I’m playing against people I know. So it might be just a little bit more sassy than usual because I know them, and it’s going to be fun. It’s going to be great.”
Bruce Miles has covered sports in the Chicago area for more than 40 years, covering baseball, hockey, football, college and high school sports, and Athletes Unlimited Softball. You can follow him on Twitter @BruceMiles2112.
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